Did you know there's such a thing as a physical for your brain?
Athene Lee, PhD, assistant professor in psychiatry and human behavior and researcher at the Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital, explains what it is and how it can help if you're concerned about your memory and cognitive function...
What can I do if I suspect that I or a loved one is experiencing abnormal memory loss?
Memory ties so closely with emotion, which together make us human. It is disheartening to see people suffer from memory disorders and gradually lose the sense of self, and I have witnessed the process in my grandparents. If you're concerned that may be the case for yourself or a loved one, talk to a primary care provider about getting a referral for a neuropsychological evaluation, more commonly known as "memory testing," which is like a physical for the brain.
People seldom hesitate to get a check-up for physical health - why not do the same for your brain? It is hard to tell if someone is just experiencing normal aging or showing signs of a memory disorder because we usually just compare ourselves to how we were doing at age 25, and that is not a fair comparison! Objective testing can give you a truer picture of your memory and cognitive abilities, allowing you to stay on top of your brain health and tackle any problems early on.
What's involved in a neuropsychological exam?
It involves meeting with a psychologist who specializes in assessing brain functions, such as memory. The appointment usually takes two to three hours and starts with a short interview about your memory or other thinking problems, medical history, and family history. Usually a family member or close friend will be invited to the interview to provide information about how you are doing at home.
After that, you will take a series of memory and thinking tests. Some are paper-pencil tasks like copying a design and writing a sentence, others may require you to remember a story or some words. Sometimes you may also take a computer test that measures your reaction time and attention. The psychologist will then give you feedback and discuss the next steps.
I'm not sure I'd even want to know the results of the test - what's the benefit of having it done?
Many people feel anxious about failing the test, but I always tell my patients that this is not like school and you are not going to get a grade! Instead, the results will tell us about your strengths and weaknesses, such that we can recommend ways to harness your strengths and accommodate any weaknesses. The pattern of your performance will also give us clues on possible causes of memory or thinking problems and inform the treatment plan.
If the test shows you haven normal cognitive ability and memory for your age, you'll have valuable peace of mind. And if it suggests that you may be developing a memory disorder like dementia or Alzheimer's it will allow you to pursue further testing and do all you can to address and deal with the cause.
If you eventually learn that your memory loss is due to developing dementia or Alzheimer's disease, there are clinical studies and trials for which you may qualify that are aimed at developing ways to slow the progression of disease. There are discoveries and advances happening at a rapid pace in the field of Alzheimer's research right now, and there's a global initiative to find an effective treatment by 2025.
We're conducting more than a dozen significant studies and clinical trials aimed at Alzeimer's diagnosis, prevention and treatment here at the Memory and Aging Program. The success of our studies depends on participation by people who have normal memory as well as those who have mild cognitive decline. You can learn more about our studies and how to get involved at butler.org/memory.